Video provided by the Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples (CIMI) of Maranhão
The footage is shaky, but what’s happening is clear: a group of women—one with a child on her back—is fighting to put out advancing flames on the forest floor.
This is the life of many Indigenous Peoples who live in Maranhão state Indigenous Lands in Brazil. Indigenous Lands are theoretically protected areas of Amazon rainforest, but local reports indicate that many Indigenous Lands are surrounded by forest fires like the one in the video. In the village of Awá in the Caru Indigenous Land, for example, forest fires are burning within 30 minutes of houses.
And according to Indigenous leaders in the region, the fire is a criminal act, perpetrated by illegal loggers and land grabbers.
This behavior is not new—I wrote about a similar round of fires on Indigenous Lands just weeks ago—but the Brazilian government continues to do little to help Indigenous People fight off the flames, with serious consequences for the residents of the forest.
Fire and hunger
As the government fails to act, hunger is growing in the affected communities.
The Awá people of Maranhão state live exclusively from the forest; their survival depends on hunting and gathering. But the fires are keeping residents from being able to feed their families. Flames surround rivers and areas where fruit is collected. Due to the location of fires in the center of their Indigenous Land, the Awá believe that places where more isolated groups of Awá go for gathering may have already been entirely burned. (Because these groups live in isolation, the specific details remain unknown.)
The situation is so desperate that the Awá and Guajajara people of Maranhão state have begun fighting fires on their own. But as they spend more time fighting flames like the women in the video, they have less time for hunting and searching for food.
“The children ask for meat when we return from fighting the fire. I tell them, we have none, just fire,” said one community member.
Map shows hot spots on Indigenous Lands of Maranhão in early December. According to INPE (National Institute for Space Research), between 1 and 15 December there were 2412 hot spots in Arariboia, 1116 in Alto Turiaçu, 302 in Caru and 225 in the Awá Indigenous Land.
When help isn’t on the way
According to information from the Missionary Council for Indigenous Peoples (CIMI) of Maranhão from last week, there are roughly 100 Guajajara and 30 Awá fighting the fires and only 45 Prevfogo fire brigade members (the national agency responsible for fighting forest fires).
If the fire is not controlled quickly, this area is likely to suffer the same fate as the Arariboia Indigenous Land, which burned unchecked for two months, destroying 45% of its forests. The Indigenous Lands of Maranhão state—Arariboia, Alto Turiaçu, Awá and now Caru—continue to burn without any effective action from the federal government.
What is happening in Maranhão is a result of the lack of an effective policy to protect Indigenous Lands in Brazil. More firefighters is a good place to start. But the federal government also needs to truly protect indigenous lands: by enforcing restrictions on logging, stopping invasions into the land and monitoring for forest fires.
What little is left of the Amazon rainforest in Maranhão lies in Indigenous Lands and protected areas like Rebio do Gurupi, which is also on fire. The people and the forest need protection. Please share their story and help pressure the government of Brazil to step up for the Indigenous Peoples of Maranhão state.
Luana Lila is an Amazon Communications Officer at Greenpeace Brazil
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